(Caveat: no disrespect intended to the man or his family. All information below is personal opinion, and mostly about the artistic decisions of the movie makers.)
Q: “In the end when he is dying his last words are ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’"
Not quite. He wrote that into some book (with “Moscow” and various Russian names in the book’s text), and then had a huge crying emotional epiphany as he looked up to the sky; as if those words were the answer to it all; as if through those words he had finally solved the mystery that was crippling him. So there’s that. But those were not his last words. In voice-over we then hear him say, ”To call each thing by it’s right name.” while the camera shows his alias carved in wood, “Alexander Supertramp”. Then the voice-over continues with a repeat, ”..by it’s right name.” cutting to his handwritten card in the window (“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”), but then slowly zooming in to closeup of how he printed his real name, “Christopher Johnson McCandless.” So in his last moments he became himself again – or was healed – a kind of secular: redemption/salvation/atonement/deliverance – however you want to think about that moment from a secular point of view.
Then they intercut between his last-gasp death mask face and an idyllic past where he’s hugging his family in a meadow run; with his actual last words being - the last words of the movie that is - “What if I were smiling; and running into your arms. Would you see then what I see now?”
Those were his last words. He was smiling and looking up to the sunny cloud-filled sky in both his idyllic memory of a family huggy shot, and ALSO in his sanctified death mask shot; laying down in the bus looking upwards out the window into the Alaskan sky. He was happy to finally die. Just like he imagined making his family happy by running into their arms. He was finally able to be happy; to leave his tormented life behind. To my mind the ending was not played as an individual’s tragedy; it was played as a glorification of a lost individual’s soul - ..a martyred hippie.
Q: “So was it a mistake to abandon society?”
Generally, sure it’s a mistake for someone to abandon society – and he had the great epiphany about that – but it wasn’t a “mistake” that he made – the tragedy of the story was that he didn’t have a choice. He was not able to cope with what modern life had in store for him (whether it was evolution or environment), but there was no “mistake” about it – it was methodical, planned, and consistent. Earlier, he looked out the restaurant window and wanted to be like normal happy people he saw, but just could not be that. He had to follow his own doomed path. It was not a “mistake” for him – it was his destiny.
Q: ”Was it all wrong to travel all the way to Alaska and live a solitary life?”
This is one of those unusual movies that has a huge gap between what I think of it and what most of my close friends think. (They loved it, I hated it.) They seem to feel something happened to him, he got caught behind the river (“..that poor boy”), and what he was doing by communing with nature was some kind of noble heroic journey; like an American Indian ‘vision quest’ or something. In short, they have deep sympathy. I don’t. I read the book, I still don’t.
So, to my friends, it was NOT “all wrong”. It was part of an individual’s natural exploration (albeit extreme) of himself and the world. To me, it was far beyond “all wrong”. It was idiotic and disgusting – not a redeeming damn thing about it. As a highly advantaged and intelligent young man; and who was a poetic, self-sufficient, and beautiful young man - if you will, an abstraction of, “the best that our society produces.” THAT is the tragedy if there is one – that the greatest and best of what we can produce as young men in our society could willfully dive into an empty pool that is outback Alaska in winter.
So to me the tragedy is not about the poor boy who got trapped, or even the stupidity of an individual or his tragic doomed destiny that he had no choice but to complete – it’s about the tragedy of a culture that can somehow produce untold numbers of people that are completely disassociated with our modern society – they want no part of it. They go to movies and like movies that glorify people who want no part of it.
Q: “What is the moral of the story?”
That hippies still hate yuppies? That children still rebel and can’t stand their conservative parents, or even the world we live in? Blah-blah-blah.